English regulator investigates Sussex over Kathleen Stock exit

Office for Students examining whether university met obligations on academic freedom and free speech, following criticism by minister

November 16, 2021

The English higher education regulator has opened an investigation into whether the University of Sussex has met its obligations on academic freedom and freedom of speech after Kathleen Stock quit the university following protests and accusations of transphobia over her views on gender identity.

The Office for Students said in a statement published on 16 November that it had opened an investigation in relation to Sussex in October. Professor Stock announced on 28 October that she was leaving her post as professor of philosophy after being targeted by protesters, who accused her of transphobia – which she denies – over her insistence that individuals cannot change their biological sex.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said at the time that it was “absolutely appalling that the toxic environment at the University of Sussex has made it untenable for Kathleen Stock to continue in her position there”.

The OfS said its investigation was “considering whether the university has complied with general ongoing conditions E1 and E2 which give regulatory force to the public interest governance principles for academic freedom and freedom of speech. It is also considering matters relating to general ongoing condition E3 which places responsibility on a provider’s governing body for compliance with all conditions of registration.

“A decision to open an investigation means that the OfS has identified potential concerns that require further scrutiny. The fact that the OfS is conducting an investigation should not be interpreted as indicating that any form of wrongdoing has actually taken place.”

Baroness Barran, a minister in the Department for Education, said in response to a question in the House of Lords on 16 November that the department had been informed of the investigation by the OfS on 11 November.

“No academic should have to fear for their personal safety, particularly as a consequence of expressing lawful views,” she said. The case “demonstrates why this government is pressing ahead with legislation to promote and defend freedom of speech on campuses”, she added.

The OfS said in its statement: “Students are entitled to be taught by academic staff with a wide range of views and who can freely express lawful views, no matter how controversial they are, without fear of losing their jobs or privileges. All students and staff are also entitled to the protections offered by equality legislation, and these must extend to all protected characteristics, including philosophical beliefs.”

Protesters have criticised Professor Stock for being a trustee of the LGB Alliance, which describes itself as promoting “the rights of lesbians, bisexuals and gay men, as recognised by biological sex”. The group is described by trans activists as transphobic, which it denies.

In a message to staff last month, Sussex vice-chancellor Adam Tickell said he had hoped that Professor Stock “would feel able to return to work, and we would have supported her to do so”.

While “rigorous academic challenge” was welcome, he continued, Sussex had witnessed “an intolerance of [Professor Stock] as a member of our community because of her work”.

“This is now – and will always be – in direct opposition to even the most basic principles of academia,” Professor Tickell said, adding that Professor Stock’s departure was “a loss to us all”.

Professor Stock, who has always rejected accusations of transphobia, wrote on Twitter at the time that she was leaving Sussex after a “very difficult few years” but that management’s “approach more recently has been admirable and decent”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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